Some years ago C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to an English translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, a very, very old book. His introduction addresses old books and modern books, and makes a strong case for having a steady diet of older books. I’ve taken some liberties with Lewis’s work to produce here an address on reading the Bible and reading popular Christian books. May it be a challenge and a blessing to you.
There is a strange idea abroad that in the Bible should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with modern books in the Christian bookstore or the “Inspirational” section of other booksellers. Thus I have found as a Bible study teacher that if the average person wants to find out something about heaven, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of the Bible off the shelf and read Revelation. He would rather read some popular modern book ten times as long, all about a near death experience and subsequent visions and only once in twelve pages quoting something the Bible actually said, and then taken out of context or used as a proof text. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The person is half afraid to meet the God of the Bible face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, God, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest person will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what God said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on heaven. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge from the Bible is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in Bible study. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not Luke or Paul or Peter or James, but Rick Warren, Beth Moore, David Jeremiah, or, if no one exercises any discernment, the likes of Joel Osteen, Sarah Young, and Colin Burpo.
Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself aspire to be a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the Bible, I would advise him to read the Bible. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an uninformed and therefore much less protected than those who read and study the Bible against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the uninformed is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the Bible and compared to the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, biblical Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the Bible. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have spent an equal amount of time in the Bible. If that is too much for you, you should at least read the Bible on a daily basis and cumulatively more than you read other books.
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the Book that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the Bible. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those who seem most opposed to it. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the Spirit blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading the Bible. It will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing.
For my own part I find the Bible more helpful in devotion than devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of Paul’s epistles with a prayer on their lips and a pencil in their hand.
This post first appeared on my blog on May 6, 2014.